Running Out of Room: Mortuaries Feel the Strain of the Virus Surge

An emergency order has been issued to suspend air-quality limits for cremations.

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While the number of people continuing to die from COVID-19 continues to climb in Southern California, hospitals and mortuaries are having a hard time keeping up, all while doing their best to honor wishes from families.

"There's nothing like this that we've experienced before, I'm coming up on 30 years this year ... this is definitely unprecedented," said Anthony Lampe, with Dignity Memorial (which owns Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary in Newhall). "This has not happened before."

Lampe says he and his staff are working to keep up. They're working long days, trying to set up virtual funeral arrangements and assisting other smaller funeral homes to meet the demand.

"We have put on extra staff. I've even brought my brother out of retirement, he's a retired embalmer, to come back and help us out."

There's a several week delay on making an arrangement and several weeks out on having a service.

Depending on a family's religion or rituals, they've asked some if they're open to cremation with a memorial service set for a later date to not overwhelm the system.

On Jan. 17, The South Coast Air Quality Management District even issued an emergency order for crematoriums, allowing them to take care of their backlog, citing that the death toll is more than double pre-pandemic years.

At Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, they're also feeling the effects.

"We have not seen the numbers of deaths that occur at the frequency," said Dr. Larry Kidd, the hospital's chief clinical officer.

He says their designated area to store the deceased has reached capacity.

"We have areas of the hospital that we've been able to utilize as an overflow area ... right now we're managing," Kidd said.

Many times, hospitals are forced to hold remains for several days before a funeral home or mortuary can pick them up.

Owners are asking everyone to stay flexible and work together as a community as they deal with loss due to the pandemic.

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